In an important judgment delivered today, the Bombay High Court upheld the right of women to access the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah, and also held that, consequently, the Haji Ali Dargah Trust’s decision to exclude them was illegal and unconstitutional. Previously, on this blog, we discussed some of the legal and constitutional issues arising out of this case, concluding that there were good constitutional arguments in favour of the right of access.
Coming in at 56 pages, the Bombay High Court’s judgment is a crisp and lucid elucidation of the existing state of religious freedom jurisprudence under the Constitution, as well as application of that jurisprudence to the facts of this case. The Court began by recounting the three reasons provided by the Trust for barring women’s entry; first, that “women wearing blouses with wide necks bend on the Mazaar, thus showing their breasts… [secondly] for the safety and security of women; and [thirdly] that earlier they [i.e., the Trust] were not aware of the provisions of Shariat and had made a mistake and therefore had taken steps to rectify the same.” (paragraph 5) It is this last reason that needed to be considered in the greatest detail, since it went directly to the heart of the Constitution’s religious freedom guarantees, granted to both individuals and to religious denominations.
In dealing with this submission, the Court considered the minutes of the meeting which had led to the Dargah Trust passing the Resolution to exclude women. Four reasons emerged out of the minutes, which overlapped with (but were not identical to) the three submissions made in Court; first, that the women being in close proximity to the grave of a saint was a “sin” in Islam; secondly, that the Trust had the fundamental right to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion under Article 26 of the Constitution; thirdly, that it was in the interests of the safety and security of women; and fourthly, at no point were women allowed to come within the proximity of the dargah (paragraph 22) This last issue was quickly disposed off by the Court, since the record made it clear that until 2011 -12, women were, as a matter of fact, allowed into the inner sanctum (paragraph 23).
This brought the Court to the core argument, which was based upon the Trust’s interpretation of Islam. The Trust argued that the Quran and the Hadith prohibited proximity of women to the tomb of a male saint, that menstruating women were ‘unclean’, and that men and women had to be separated at holy places. To substantiate this argument, it placed verses from the Quran as well as the Hadith before the Court. The Court found, however, that none of these texts stated that the presence of women in proximity to the tomb of a saint was a “sin”, and nor did they support “the absolute proposition” for banning the entry of women into the inner sanctum because of the need for “segregation”. While the Petitioners had also produced verses from the Quran in support of gender equality, the Court held that there was no need to go into these, since the Trust, on its own terms, had failed to show that the entry of women into the inner sanctum was a sin under Islam (paragraph 26).
The Court then turned to the arguments under Article 25 (freedom of religion), and Article 26(b) of the Constitution – namely, that every religious denomination, or section, had the right to mange its own affairs in matters of religion. On Article 25, relying upon the long-standing religious freedom jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, the Court first invoked the “essential religious practices test” – i.e., was the exclusion of women from the inner sanctum of a shrine an “essential” or “integral” part of Islam? According to the Court, the test for an “essential practice” was that it must “constitute the very essence of that religion, and should be such, that if permitted, it will change its fundamental character” (paragraph 29). This being the case, the Court found that the Trust had failed to demonstrate that Islam did not permit the entry of women into Dargahs/Mosques, a claim that was further weakened, given that women had been allowed entry up until 2011 – 2012 (paragraph 31). Of course, the Trust argued that it was only after 2011 that its attention had been drawn to what the Sharia actually required; to this, the Court’s swift response was that the Trust had placed nothing on record to show what specific aspects of the Sharia had been drawn to the Trust’s attention that changed the position so drastically (paragraph 31).
The Court then turned to Article 26(b), which guaranteed to religious denominations the right to manage their own affairs in matters of religion. The Court first went into the history of the Trust itself, and its operations. It noted that the Haji Ali Dargah stood on public land, leased to the Trust by the Government; a scheme for managing the Trust was drawn up by a government-appointed commissioner in 1936; the role of the Trustees was to prepare books of account, conduct business, maintain the properties, and so on (paragraph 33). This enquiry was important, because under the Supreme Court’s Article 26(b) jurisprudence, especially insofar as it concerns the rights of trusts or maths, a distinction must be drawn between religious activities on the one hand, and secular activities bearing the trappings of religion on the other (unlike the essential practices test, this distinction is actually grounded in the Constitutional text – for instance, Article 25(2)(a), which permits State intervention into secular aspects of religious practice – as well as the Constituent Assembly Debates). Consequently, the Court found that:
“The aims, objects and activities of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust as set out in the Scheme are not governed by any custom, tradition/usage. The objects of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust are in respect of purely secular activities of a non-religious nature, such as giving loans, education, medical facilities, etc. Neither the objects nor the Scheme vest any power in the trustees to determine matters of religion, on the basis of which entry of woman is being restricted.”
It’s important to note here that unlike many other cases before it, the Court did not here get into the question of whether the exclusion of women from the dargah was a “religious” question or not. It simply held that the Trust was never authorised to deal with matters of religion, and that therefore, Article 26(b) was not even attracted in the first place. And there was a further reason why Article 26(b) could not apply:
“Admittedly, the Haji Ali Dargah Trust is a public charitable trust. It is open to people all over the world, irrespective of their caste, creed or sex, etc. Once a public character is attached to a place of worship, all the rigors of Articles 14, 15 and 25 would come into play and the respondent No. 2 Trust cannot justify its decision solely based on a misreading of Article 26. The respondent No. 2 Trust has no right to discriminate entry of women into a public place of worship under the guise of `managing the affairs of religion’ under Article 26 and as such, the State will have to ensure protection of rights of all its citizens guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution, including Articles 14 and 15, to protect against discrimination based on gender.” (paragraph 36)
In other words, the Dargah’s public character took it out of the protective scope of Article 26(b), and made it subject to Articles 14, 15 and 25 of the Constitution. This is a fascinating point, especially given the long history of temple-entry movements in India. Ever since the time of Ambedkar, temple-entry movements have framed the basic question as being about access to public spaces, a right that could not be curtailed on grounds of caste etc. In this case, the form of the Trust – as well as the fact that the Dargah was “open” to all – allowed the Court to hold that the question of access was of a “public” character, and therefore, impliedly, outside Article 26(b).
The Court then went on to hold, however, that even if it was attracted, Article 26(b) could not override other constitutional provisions:
“Infact, the right to manage the Trust cannot override the right to practice religion itself, as Article 26 cannot be seen to abridge or abrogate the right guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution.” (paragraph 36)
With respect, this might not be correct. It is, in fact, Article 25 of the Constitution that contains the prefatory term “Subject to other provisions of this Part…” This suggests that when the framers wanted to subordinate one provision of Part III to the others, they did so expressly. The omission of this phrase in Article 26 would suggest, therefore, that it is 25(1) that is subject to 26 (in case of a clash), and that, at the very least, more work must be done before holding that Article 26(b) is subject to Articles 14 and 15.
Lastly, the Court swiftly disposed off the ‘women’s security’ argument, holding that it was for the Dargah (as well as the State) to take effective steps to guarantee the security of women, instead of banning them outright (paragraph 37). It ordered, therefore, that status quo be restored, i.e. “women be permitted to enter the sanctum sanctorum at par with men.”
The reader will note, at this point, that a final step in the argument appears to be missing. Even after holding that the arguments of the Dargah, based on Articles 25 and 26 failed, on what legal or constitutional basis were the women enforcing their right of access against the Dargah? The Dargah was not, after all, a State body, and consequently, there could be no direct relief against it under Articles 14, 15, or 25. The Court didn’t address this question separately, but the answer is found back in paragraph 18:
“… the State cannot deprive its citizens of the constitutional rights guaranteed under Articles 14 and 15. It would then be the Constitutional responsibility of the State to ensure that the principles enshrined in the Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution are upheld. Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees that `the State shall not deny any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the law within the territory of India’ and Article 15 guarantees `the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. The State would then be under a constitutional obligation to extent equal protection of law to the petitioners to the extent, that it will have to ensure that there is no gender discrimination.”
In other words, what the Court held was that under Part III, the State did not merely have a negative obligation not to infringe fundamental rights. Rather, it had a positive obligation to prevent a private party from infringing upon another private party’s fundamental rights (this, I argued before, was a move open to the Court in light of the Supreme Court judgments in Vishaka and Medha Kotwal Lele). In technical terms, this is called “indirect horizontality” (discussed previously here). If a private party is infringing my fundamental rights, I cannot move the Court directly against that private party, and ask the Court for relief against it; I must make the State a Respondent, and ask the Court to direct the State to take necessary action in order that I may vindicate my fundamental rights (by deploying police, security, or whatever else). And interestingly the petitioners in this case did make the State a party – in fact, the State was the First Respondent.
Let us now summarise the structure of the judgment:
- The Haji Ali Dargah Trust justified the exclusion of women from the inner sanctum on the basis of the freedom of religion (Article 25(1)), and the right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs in the matters of religion (Article 26(b).
- The Court rejected the Article 25(1) argument on the basis that the Trust had failed to place any material on record to demonstrate that the exclusion of women from dargahs was an “essential feature” of Islam. The Dargah’s claims were thrown further into doubt by the fact that women had been accessing the sanctum up until 2011 – 12.
- The Court rejected the Article 26(b) argument on the basis that:
- The Scheme of the Dargah Trust did not allow it to adjudicate upon religious matters. Hence, Article 26(b) was not attracted.
- The Dargah Trust was a public charitable trust, and the Dargah was a public space open to all. Hence, Article 26(b) was not attracted.
- Even if Article 26(b) was attracted, it was overriden by Articles 14, 15 and 25(1)
- The exclusion of women from the inner sanctum of the Dargah violated their rights under Articles 14 (equality), 15(1) (non-discrimination) and 25(1) (freedom of religion).
- Consequently, insofar as the Dargah Trust was impeding the women’s enjoyment of their fundamental rights, they were entitled to call upon the State to perform its positive obligations under Part III of the Constitution, and vindicate their rights by taking appropriate enforcement-oriented action.
By way of conclusion, let me make two points. On this blog, I have strongly opposed the “essential features” test as being a doctrinal, historical and philosophical mistake (see here), and proposed an alternative interpretation of Articles 25 and 26 (see here). If, however, there is to be a change, that change must be initiated by the Supreme Court, sitting in a bench of appropriate strength (at least seven judges). Whatever the Bench’s personal views on the essential religious practices test, sitting as the Bombay High Court, they had no choice but to follow and apply it. This they did. What is important to note, however, is that they applied it in a narrow, circumspect, and sensitive manner, and to the extent that they necessarily had to. They limited themselves to examining only the material placed on record by the Trust. Even though the Petitioners had placed on record material arguing that Islam mandated gender equality, the bench refused to make observations on that point, one way or another. Unlike far too many previous cases, they refrained from making grand, overarching claims about the religion before them. Given that the whole problem with the essential practices doctrine is that it allows judges to impose an external view upon the lived practices and traditions of the community, the Bombay High Court’s reticence in doing that must be applauded.
This brings me to the second, related point. Over the past few years, cases of this sort – which involve issues of fundamental rights, religion, and gender equality, among others, have seen much judicial grandstanding. There have been broad and sweeping statements, which do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny, very little attention to the Constitution and to legal doctrine, and the privileging of rhetoric over reason. The Bombay High Court’s judgment is the exact opposite of all this. The bench decided the case on closely-reasoned legal grounds (as any court must) refused the obvious temptation of buccaneering into the political and religious thicket, and avoided doing anything more than was absolutely necessary for deciding the case. If we criticise the judiciary when it plays to the galleries, we must also praise it when it abstains from doing so. For that reason, apart from everything else, today’s judgment deserves much praise.